That's so meta!

I hate arguing with painters.

I don’t really like talking to them all that much, especially about their work. Ever ask a painter what their painting means? Most of the walls of text that accompany museum pieces are either history lessons or abstract poems, and none of that has  anything to do with how a painting is gonna make you feel. That’s the point, right? Visual art is meant to be understood emotionally rather than logically. The thing is, our brains crave logic, any kind of logic, so we shoehorn (Does anybody actually shoehorn anymore?) our own context to make things make sense. A sad painting doesn’t just make you sad, it makes you feel like you did when you got dumped on Valentines Day via your Myspace wall. Artists ask the audience to create their own metaphors. Contrast that with wordsmiths, who use metaphor to give deeper meaning and in turn inspire feeling. Seems less efficient.

Back to arguing. Arguing is stupid because language is more complex and personal than we think. We never fully understand what the other person means, get caught up in tone and posture, and eventually devolve into semantics or some other kind of arguing about arguing. Nobody’s mind ever changes, even when one party is clearly super wrong. We agree-to-disagree, or somebody uses charisma and wit to talk the other into submission. MC battles make more sense now. Some scholars think that arguing is primarily and kinda sorta only a dominance thing. Every debate and disagreement is as useful and informative as that MC battle.

For real. Check out what Dr. Hugo Mercier had to say about arguing in a recentish essay in The Journal of Behavioral and Brain Science:

“Reasoning doesn’t have this function of helping us to get better beliefs and make better decisions. It was a purely social phenomenon. It evolved to help us convince others and to be careful when others try to convince us.”

I don’t want to think we’re that bad at communicating. That being typed, I can’t recall a time I’ve had my worldview upended by an argument. I’ve always had to come to the conclusion by myself. A lot of this is due to Confirmation Bias, but is it possible my reliance on words is to blame? We put a lot of stock into the ideas of intrinsic or universal truth, yet we have such trouble agreeing on truth between two people about what the word ‘truth’ means. Dictionaries only help so much. Words are so fluid that Wikipedia has trouble keeping up with them. I’d argue (heh) that words change every time they are used, and their full meaning is known only to the speaker. The written word is even more difficult. Speaking conveys tone, and looks affect how we regard the speaker, but the writer is only a made up voice in the reader’s head. While a painter can reliably relate a feeling with color, a writer is left to hope that you already think like them. This is why I don’t like most riddles or crossword puzzles. It’s not a logic game, it’s a psychoanalysis of the writer. A five-letter word for “Took Advantage of Bargains?” (Thanks USA Today crossword people) Enron?

Even rhythm is hard to dictate. Check out this rhyme I wrote:

My taste buds percolate once you give me that brain trust. Momma said that the same stuff that we share, like fair, is all made up and folks that pay us are here to play us. Mind over master. Choose your adventure blindly. Faster. No sweet tooth, more inlined to crash than a happily-ever-after.

Got it? Now try rapping it to a beat. I bet not a pair of you does it the same. For referencical sake, here’show I did it.

Back to metaphor. Writers use metaphor because it’s one of the few ways to reliably influence emotions without the aid of music or actors. There’s a wonderful study about the effects of metaphor in reasoning. The gist is that 2 groups were shown identical crime statistics and asked about solutions to rising crime in their neighborhood. For the first group the crimewave was presented as wild beast preying on a city, and for the second it was described as a virus infecting the city. The first group advocated catching more criminals and harsher law enforcement, while the second group proposed investigating root causes and working on social reform. Both groups cited the statistics as the reason for their choices.

Why did the metaphorical nudging work? My thinking is that pictures trump words. You can talk about crime all day, but the moment you can put an image of a rampaging beast in someone’s head, they’re loading up rifles. Crime is a complex issue that can’t possibly be solved with words, but a beast can get shot. In an argument, or MC battle, words are less important than pitch and rhythm. They’re bound to be misinterpreted unless this bundle of very personal and ever changing words can create an image in the head of the audience. Even then, it’s subject to so many types of bias that the writer rarely knows what image they’re invoking. This is why I can’t argue with painters. They think in pictures and somewhere inside them they know words can’t ever truly explain what they’re thinking, so why bother?

Maybe it’s not the most useful of conclusions, but maybe you only liked this if it didn’t disagree with what you already thought, or maybe now you hate me because you think this sentence is judging you. Maybe I should just draw you a picture.

Brian ‘Dyalekt’ Kushner is probably not Banksy.